As the New York Met’s epic production of Götterdämmerung is broadcast in cinemas, Tim Cornwell travels to the USA for a look behind the scenes – and to meet two of the opera’s Scottish stars
OPERA doesn’t get much bigger than Götterdämmerung at the Met – the four-hour climax of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, at New York Metropolitan Opera – “the biggest, grandest, most respected opera house in the world”, as Vanity Fair magazine put it. The company spends over $250 million (£156m) a year, rotating between about two dozen different operas at the rate of up to seven shows a week.
The Met’s new Ring cycle is directed by Robert LePage and cost a reported $16m (£10m). It has become famous for its 45-ton (40 tonne) set, consisting of 24 giant angled planks that rotate on an axle above and to the back of the stage. They are set near-flat for some scenes, vertically for others, while video projections turn them into forests, fiery mountains, forbidding banquet halls or rivers flowing with blood. In some they move and lurk menacingly, like giant abstract dogs.
This Saturday, two weeks after its premiere, Götterdämmerung will be broadcast live to over 1,600 cinemas in 54 countries, including seven in Scotland. One of the most human figures in this drama of Gods and superheroes is Gunther, a weak-willed, self-doubting king who plots the betrayal of heroic Siegfried but is still in awe of him. He’s played by bass-baritone Iain Paterson, the Royal Scottish Conservatoire graduate whose career is on a rising trajectory on the international opera stage.
When I arrive, the scene on the stage at the Met looks like a cross between a film set for On the Waterfront and another for Ben-Hur. Giant classical pedestals from the set of Anna Bolena, the Donizetti opera designed by Paterson’s fellow Glaswegian David McVicar, are being slowly lowered into place for the evening’s performance, dwarfing stage crew who swarm around like dockworkers. The understage seems as cavernous as a dry dock for the Titanic.
To the right, the huge revolving beams that made up the set of the previous night’s Götterdämmerung are stowed, awaiting their next outing.
Paterson leads the way through to the dressing rooms, down a corridor lined with double-bass cases that face out from the walls like sarcophagi. We wait for three huge silvery chandeliers to be rolled past us on trolleys. His name is on one of the doors, though velvety costumes for another singer, from the cast of Anna Bolena, are already hanging there.
Three years ago, when he came here for his debut performance at the Met, a helpful porter told Paterson: “This is the dressing room that Mr Pavarotti used to prefer.” He was monitoring his blood pressure regularly, at that time, and on that night, “the biggest thing” he’d ever done it went from normal to “through the roof”. “I don’t know if they were winding me up, but it certainly broke the tension,” he says.
The Scots are not quite taking over Manhattan. But from our country, better known in the opera scene for the emasculation of its national opera company rather than nurturing superstars, there is quite a confluence of talent. The Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill makes her own Met debut in Götterdämmerung in April, singing the Valkyrie Waltraute in one of the opera’s most moving passages (meaning she is not featured in this weekend’s broadcast). The musical coach working closely with both of them is John Fisher, another Glaswegian, a legendary opera director who ran both La Scala and Welsh National Opera. McVicar’s new production of Anna Bolena, meanwhile, is just a reminder of that director’s huge presence on the international opera scene.
At a boutique coffee shop near the Lincoln Centre, housing New York’s opera and ballet companies and its famed Juilliard School, Paterson and Cargill meet for an interview and a gossip, and agree to meet Fisher to watch the Scotland-England rugby match. “It’s Mecca, really, it is Mecca,” Cargill says. When she came for the audition, walking past the photographs of the great singers of the past, “I don’t know how I managed to walk. It’s slightly terrifying, but it’s amazing.”
Paterson graduated from what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama a couple of years before Cargill. They pursued different paths to success, with Paterson heading to Opera North and rising up the ranks in English opera, while Cargill focused initially on a concert career, and firmly rooted in Scotland. New York’s been a bit of a reunion, for their two careers have rarely crossed paths until recently.
“People have been coming up to me and saying, your countrywoman has got a fair set of pipes,” says Paterson.
Both have sung big roles in big houses internationally – Paterson in Don Giovanni at English National Opera and Billy Budd at Glyndebourne; Cargill in the Berlin Philharmonic and at the Proms – but they share what seems a genuine ingenue’s astonishment at being at the Met.
Paterson’s parents were both in the police; he rides a motorbike back in England and is considering a boys’ outing to the USS Intrepid, the aircraft carrier now a floating museum in New York. It’s a long way from Glasgow, where he was a school rugby player until, at 17, after a teenage injury, he was given a role in The Pirates of Penzance. With a sparkle in his eye, he remembers performing as the Second Armed Man in a student production of The Magic Flute staged by McVicar.
The conversation at the café swings from Cargill and her three-year-old son – who will fly out to her Wagnerian debut with the rest of her family, with Tartan banners hanging from the balcony, she jokes – to, inevitably, Scottish Opera. Paterson throws out the idea that Scottish Opera should move to Edinburgh to revive itself; Cargill believes it must increase its roster of operas. Nine years after Scottish Opera’s own Ring Cycle, she says the company would be unable to stage it again.
Paterson has been teased about his Götterdämmerung costume, which makes him look like a kind of dandified military officer, in scenes where others carry shields and spears. “We were joking about it, saying that I’m in some weird Star Trek episode,” he says. “I look like a Federation Officer in the first two acts and then I put on my hunting costume and look like a Klingon.” Contemplating the live broadcast to tens of thousands of people, he says: “I do that much frowning, Botox might not be a bad idea, to get them to fix it in place.”
Joking aside, Paterson is seen as a rising operatic force. Gunther is one of the smaller parts in Götterdämmerung – about 20 minutes of singing, he notes, if you put it back-to-back, though more than two hours on stage, with reactive acting as heroes, Valkyries and villains pursue the Ring of power. But at 38, he is already preparing for Wotan, the epic bass-baritone role in the earlier parts of Wagner’s four-opera, 15 hour Ring cycle. It’s for a North American production about two years away, though he’s not yet allowed to say where, and would presumably lead to others.
Cargill is much better known to Scottish audiences, for performances with Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Scottish Opera. Like Paterson she came from unlikely roots, with a father who ran a plumbing and gas fitting firm. Her casting as Waltraute, the mezzo-soprano who shares one of the most beautiful passages in Götterdämmerung, entreating her sister Brunhilde to give up the Ring, appears a signal of her move from the concert stage towards heavy-duty opera roles.
The Met, the giant of classical music in America, is not without its critics at the moment; it is privately funded, but there’s media unease at over-spending on testing shows. The latest Ring cycle has not helped. For 20 years, the Met had a popular, traditional and literal version of Wagner’s opera, in which Paterson had his first outing as Gunther. This time it is reported that the floor of the stage had to be reinforced with steel girders to hold LePage’s massive revolving planks.
There are some stunning moments in the production – where the three Rhinemaidens slip, slide, and swim about the stage – but against this uncompromising set, reminiscent of a contemporary video art work, the singers wear traditional costumes and spears and swords that come to seem like ridiculous toys, as does Siegfried’s mechanical horse. The New York Times’ critic, while praising the singers, noted: “Part of me wanted to see the machine collapse into a heap of smoldering planks.”
It will be interesting to see how this show comes across in the live broadcast, which can dwell less on the giant spinning machinery, and more on close-ups of stars like Deborah Voigt, as Brunnhilde. One dramatic highlight is where Paterson, as Gunther, rinses off the blood in the Rhine after the slaying of Siegfried. “I never ever fail to be tickled when I wash the blood off my hands,” he says.
• Iain Paterson has been mentioned as Scotland’s future answer to Welsh singing star Bryn Terfel, but is not a frequent performer in this country. He has sung in both the opening and closing concerts of the Edinburgh International Festival – Strauss’ Elektra in 2006 and Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius in 2009 - but never with Scottish Opera (the company once offered a part in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, he said, then told him the next day the production was cancelled.
Born in Glasgow in 1973, Paterson auditioned as a violinist at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, but was offered a place as a singer. He sang with Opera North’s chorus for four years. In one career breakthrough he stepped in at short notice to cover a Verdi role for English National Opera. A bass-baritone – a term first used to describe a baritone voice suited to Wagnerian roles – he has sung with the Berlin Philharmonic, at the Hollywood Bowl, and in opera houses from London to Paris and Salzburg.
• Götterdämmerung is screening on Saturday at The Belmont Picturehouse, Aberdeen; Dundee Contemporary Arts; The Cameo, Edinburgh; Cineworld, Falkirk; Pavillion Cinema, Galashiels; Cineworld, Glasgow Renfrew; Perth Playhouse